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All around this country, we see crosses and crucifixes adorning churches and cemeteries, and worn as jewellery. It is remarkable that what was designed in ancient times as the most extreme form of torture and execution would be embraced as the symbol of Christianity.

The goal of crucifixion was to cause as much pain and humiliation as possible to those who were subjected to this inhumane treatment. It was so gruesome a form of execution that was rarely used by the Roman Empire on its own citizens but reserved for rebels, slaves, or those who committed treason.[1]

Yet the symbol of the cross was embraced very early within Christian circles as a simple, pictorial representation of their faith in Christ. According to the Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Moody, 1975),

The sign of the cross may have been used by early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem before the city’s destruction in a.d. 70. Ossuaries (rectangular stone chests for human bones) were found in 1945 in the suburb of Talpioth, one of which was marked on each of the four sides with a rough cross, like a plus sign. A similarly marked ossuary was included in an apparently Christian cemetery on the Mount of Olives (FLAP, pp. 331 ff.). At Herculaneum, destroyed in a.d. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a house was excavated which showed a Latin cross incised in the plastered wall above a small wooden cabinet taken to be a prayer stool or an altar (FLAP, pp. 363 f.).[2]

“Cross”, Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia

This is not to say that early Christians worshipped the cross or saw it as some kind of talisman or good luck charm, and neither should we. It was a simple symbol that silently pointed to the central truths of the Christian faith, and to this day is recognized around the world. The danger, of course, is that people can use the symbol without understanding its significance.

This symbolism did not develop in a vacuum. The Apostle Paul summarised the whole of the gospel he preached as “the message [lit. word] of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18). He recognised that this “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). He understood that it was a stumbling block to religious Jews and foolishness to the sophisticated Greek culture, and yet he insisted that this was the message he was called to proclaim. He said, “We preach Christ crucified!” (1 Corinthians 1:23), because he wanted to ensure that their faith was not based on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

Yet even though this message was so widely despised and ridiculed, he refused to change the message to make it more appealing to either the Jews or the Greeks and would unashamedly declare to the Galatian believers:

“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Galatians 6:14

However, this idea of the glory of the cross did not originate with the Apostle Paul but with the Lord Jesus Himself. The four Gospels make plain that the Lord Jesus was acutely aware of the nature of the mission on which He had been sent by His Father. For instance, early in John’s Gospel we read that Jesus said,

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:14-15

Jesus purposefully used a play on words. The Jewish people he was speaking to knew the story of Moses placing a bronze serpent on a pole so that whoever looked at the serpent would be healed from the venomous snake bites that were killing them (Numbers 21:9). Jesus knew that soon He would be lifted up on a cross so that anyone who looked to Him in faith would be cleansed of the sin that had placed them under condemnation. As one scholar put it:

The bronze serpent was an antidote to the poisonous death that rebellion had caused; Jesus became the antidote to the sin of a world.

Merrill Tenny

But that term “lifted up” was also commonly used to speak of something that was raised to a position of exaltation, and since that time, millions have lifted up the name of the Lord Jesus and continue to sing His praise.

In the opening chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus is offering the Jewish people eternal life. But by the end of chapter twelve, a point of no return has been reached. While many have received Him and believed on His name and been born of God (John 1:10-13), the nation generally has officially rejected His claims and are looking for an opportunity to get rid of Him. Jesus was conscious that He was operating according to His Father’s program and timetable and repeatedly said that His hour had not yet come (John 2:4; 7:6, 30; 8:20). But at the end of chapter twelve He says,

But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.

John 12:23-24

Although He fully understood that the time had come for Him to suffer and die (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), He spoke of this as the hour that He should be glorified.

How is it possible that He could view His death as something glorious? Did He view Himself as a martyr? No, He saw Himself as the Saviour of the world, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). He knew that He would lay down His life and that no one could take it from Him (John 10:17-18).

He clearly understood the reality of the sufferings He was about to endure: the physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering entailed in that death. And while He would pray that, if possible, the Father would take that cup away from Him, He also knew that there was no other way that sinners could be reconciled to a holy God. His death was no defeat, but rather a victory over sin, death, and Satan. And so He prayed:

“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”

John 12:27-28

On the cross, Jesus would become our substitute, our sin-bearer. He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). This was in fulfilment of the prophecy given to Isaiah 700 years before the birth of Christ:

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:5-6

Those who have come to understand the seriousness of their sins in the sight of a holy God and have looked in faith to Jesus lifted up on the Cross, receive eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and peace with God. The essence of this eternal life is fellowship with God the Father and God the Son (John 17:3). And those who understand the cost of this salvation, are those who want to lift Him up in praise and worship, and, like the Apostle Paul, want to spread “the message of the cross” with others and boast in His cross alone.

[1] Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Crucifixion” (Lexham Press, 2016).

FLAP Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past

FLAP Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past

[2] R. Allan Killen, “Cross,” ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, and John Rea, The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Moody Press, 1975).